Future-proofing homes: building for a changing climate

The effects of our changing climate aren't just coming anymore, they are here. How and where we build has to change as well.

Flooded community in Alberta via Calgary Sun
Flooded community in Alberta via Calgary Sun

'Future-proofing' homes: Anticipating future challenges and building to withstand them. 

While it is impossible to know exactly what the future holds, some of the earlier predictions about the impacts of climate change are already happening, and modern building practices should reflect that. While one single event cannot be attributed solely to climate change, the type and frequency of events we are seeing are exactly what was predicted by climate scientists and can no longer be ignored.

If a 'once in a century' storm now comes by a couple of times in a decade, we need to factor that in when deciding where and even how we build. Higher global temperatures means more moisture in the air, more turbulent air, and consequently more violent and unpredictable storms.

We are already paying for our inaction through tax dollars directed at disaster relief, reduced production in many industries, and increased drains on power grids and resources. Most directly perhaps, would be through home insurance rates which are creeping up to cover the added claims we are seeing. And in some cases like flooding, you aren't automatically covered.

Property values are also being affected, as homes built in low lying areas that have either seen or are at risk of seeing flooding will have significantly less appeal to a buying market that is becoming increasingly more aware of global climate issues.

We have now hit the ominous 400ppm (parts per million) mark of carbon in the atmosphere, the point that climate scientists have often identified as the point of no return. Despite that grim forecast, the talk we hear is about reducing emissions to a few percentage points below levels that was already much too high, and someday in the future. That is comically insufficient and darkly amusing at best. Modern society has simply handed the issue to our kids to deal with, as collectively we are unwilling to make any sacrifices ourselves. 

And as we have committed ourselves to emptying one of the biggest carbon lockers on the planet with pipelines stretching from the oil sands across the continent, there is one way you can help your kids out since elected policy makers are failing to do so - let them inherit a house that can handle the mess we are leaving them. 

Future-proofing homes

Since a home built today should be around at least many decades, it is worth anticipating the possible challenges we might have to face in an uncertain future climate. Resources are becoming increasingly more scarce and expensive, so the less energy you need to operate a home the better.

Increased durability and performance measures will add upfront costs to a building project, but they can help save on operational and maintenance costs, both of which could see dramatic increases in the future. And it only makes sense to protect your investment by building something that will last.

It is easy to believe that a brand new house that has met a provincial building code is ready to face these challenges, but that is far from the truth. Building code continues to improve performance requirements (albeit slowly) as it is being driven by innovation and market demand among other things. Ultimately though, it is a follower not a leader. As the challenges a home will face continue to increase in magnitude, we are best to factor that into our designs now. Just because building codes likely won't recognize that for another 30 years doesn't mean you can't build something better now.

Climate change isn't just coming anymore, it's here. Data shows that since 1980, extreme weather events around the globe have doubled. The frequency and severity of extreme events like storms, floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires are almost exactly double what they were just a few decades ago.

The potential challenges a house may face will vary by climate, but the main concerns that could lead to increased damage to homes would be periods of extreme heat and humidity ; heavier rain fall and in a shorter amount of time; heavier snow loads; high winds; more frequent and sustained power outages and the migration of harmful insects like termites to new climates.

Recognizing which issues you are most vulnerable to and factoring that into your design can result in a more resilient home, which will last longer and add value.

Related pages on resilient home design and construction: